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The Story Behind the ACT

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Unlike the SAT which is poised to celebrate its 90th anniversary in 2016, the ACT (American College Testing) program is a comparative newcomer to the college admissions arena.

Established in 1959 by Ted McCarrel and E.F. Lindquist, the ACT was developed to accomplish three things:

  1. Provide an alternative to the SAT
  2. Assess academic preparedness rather than college readiness
  3. Serve as a combined admissions test and placement tool

Based on the Iowa Tests of Educational Development, the ACT incorporated several distinctive features. Experts from around the country were recruited to write questions and the exam could be scored by optical scanning machines rather than by hand. Test scores were reported to colleges for admission purposes and directly to students to provide insights into their academic strengths and potential career areas.

In 1959, close to 75,000 high school students in 16 states completed the first ACT. It lasted three hours and consisted of four sections: English, math, social studies and natural sciences. Unlike the SAT which emphasized logic and reasoning, the ACT focused on knowledge acquired through coursework and study.

Scores were calculated on a scale of 1 to 36 and reported for each section as well as overall achievement. The ACT quickly became the entrance exam of choice for colleges and universities in the Midwest and South as an alternative to the SAT favored by elite private Northeastern institutions.

By 1961, close to 15% (300,000) of the 1.9 million high school graduates were taking the ACT in addition to or in place of the SAT. By the early 1970s, an average of 1 million students a year opted for the ACT.

Like the SAT, the ACT has undergone constant revision and refinement. In 1989, the scoring methodology was “recentered.” By 1990, student composite scores were on average nearly two points higher than in 1988 and some subtest scores increased by nearly three points on average.

The recentering process made students, parents and educators happy, but it severed the relationship between old ACT scores (1959 to 1989) and new ACT scores (1990 to present). This makes long-term comparisons and trend analyses difficult at best.

In 1996, the powers-that-be took another step to break with the past. They abandoned the acronym and adopted the name “ACT” for both the company and test as an identifier with no particular meaning or relationship to the original American College Testing moniker.

The ACT admissions exam has long been accepted by most four-year colleges and universities in the US, and in 2007, the last holdout began accepting both the ACT or SAT. In 2010, the ACT achieved a major milestone when the number of students opting for it outstripped those taking the SAT. That trend has continued, and today roughly 1.6 million college applicants take the ACT each year.

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